Keeping race on the agenda

The recent Black Lives Matter protests and wider civil rights movements have brought the topic of race and racism into the foreground throughout society. To help maintain this momentum, clinical psychologist Dr Fabienne Palmer outlines how employers and business leaders can continue conversations about race equality in the workplace.

It’s been just over a month since the killing of George Floyd sparked worldwide protests and civil rights movements on a scale never seen before. Since then, we’ve been on a collective journey towards a better understanding of racism, in terms of how it operates in different contexts, and the resultant far-reaching and long-lasting consequences for those who are most affected.

With such emotive content flooding our timelines and news-feeds, this collective journey is one which, regardless of our own ethnic background, is likely to have led us to having difficult or uncomfortable conversations among friends, families, colleagues, and strangers alike. These conversations may have encouraged us to open up and speak about these issues, or perhaps they left us feeling closed down, angry or distressed.

Our feelings connected with talking about race will depend on things like our experience of or relationship to racism (e.g. if we have been a victim of racism vs if we have not experienced it at all), the level of safety or lack thereof within the conversation (e.g. speaking with a friend who has similar views vs speaking with a stranger who has opposing views), and the intention of the conversation (e.g. to promote learning and change vs to belittle and undermine).

The level of coverage in the media may also determine how able we feel to keep the conversation going. And as the spotlight begins to fade on what has been a colossal moment in history, many of us have been starting to wonder, what next?

Below, I answer some commonly asked questions about keeping race on the agenda in a meaningful and sustainable way. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach – and the ideas in this post are by no means exhaustive – the following steps should help to provide a starting point for ongoing conversations around race and racism at work.

How can I talk about race issues or racism within my workplace?

When talking about complex or difficult issues or topics, it can help to have some structure around the conversation. Structure can take lots of different forms, for example, it may mean having a regular time and space for people to be able to meet and speak about their experiences (e.g. reflective practice workshops, training sessions, diversity and inclusion events). Structure can also mean having an up-to-date diversity and inclusion policy that outlines your organisation’s stance on race and racism, as well as how staff can report and receive support for any race-related issues that happen within the workplace.

Structure helps to create a safe space for people to feel confident opening up and sharing vulnerabilities together. It means people are more likely to hear and respond thoughtfully to each other’s perspectives, which can improve relationships and experience at work, and in turn enhance productivity. Structure can also slow down the pace and take the pressure off staff and the wider organisation. It’s important these conversations are not rushed through, and instead form part of an ongoing iterative process in which positive change is planned, implemented and reviewed at regular intervals.

What am I allowed to talk about at work?

It’s worth stating that not everyone will feel able to speak openly about their views on, or experiences of, racism in their work environment. For some people, their experiences of talking about racism either at work or in their personal lives have not been met with particularly supportive or encouraging responses; this can lead to long-lasting feelings of shame, distress, and trauma. Therefore, understandably, they may not be keen to open up to others out of fear they’ll receive the same response again. On the other hand, there may be other staff who really want to talk about race or racism, who feel like those issues are not being given enough attention or thought within their work environment.

Some people feel staying neutral, or quiet, on issues such as race or racism is an act of violence or a form of being complicit. Other people experience what has been termed as “racial battle fatigue” – feeling tired or overwhelmed with the enormity of the conversations around race and racism – who may contribute to discussions about race at the expense of their emotional well-being. As such, it can be difficult for people to know whether to speak out or to stay quiet, or to have a sense of whether they may unwittingly offend or further oppress others when engaging in complex and often emotionally charged conversations about race or racism. Therefore, to get a sense of what is permissible to talk about at work, it may be necessary to do some research to find out about the wants and needs of a given team or organisation.

Organisations can do this collaboratively by asking their staff directly, using meetings, workshops, surveys or polls. We should be looking to identify: what people currently feel comfortable talking about, what they would like to be talking about, and what they feel they’d need to make those conversations as safe, meaningful, and empowering as possible. The information gathered through this exercise can provide useful insights and learnings for organisations, which can be used to inform or revise and update parts of their diversity and inclusion policies and processes. Guidance or consultation from diversity and inclusion specialists can also be useful for organisations who would like to review and update relevant policies and processes in line with staff needs, as well as current legislation and research.

What if I get things wrong? 

The Black Lives Matter protests and recent civil rights movement have led to increased awareness of the everyday and lifelong struggles faced by those from minority ethnicity groups, especially those who identify as Black. One benefit of the increased awareness is the increase of high quality, accessible, and informative resources available for people to educate themselves about the experiences of minority ethnicity groups. There’s also a wealth of information that explores the socio-historical and political context of racism. These insights explain the common feelings experienced by those belonging to the majority ethnicity group (e.g. white British) as well as those from minority ethnicity groups, during conversations or situations where race or racism is mentioned. There’s also a lot of advice on how to become a true ally in the fight against racism, as well as how to challenge racism in an everyday ongoing way.

A really common worry when it comes to talking about race or racism is the idea that there’s a right or perfect way to speak about these issues. Education can help improve the quality of the conversations being had at work. Taking time to engage with relevant content will help manage your worries about getting things wrong, as you will be coming from a place of having a better understanding and some awareness, as opposed to a place of fear and uncertainty. The work you put into educating yourself will be reflected in the type of questions you ask or reflections you feel able to share in conversations around race or racism.

Structure can also help to manage this worry. For example, agreeing to speak about these issues within meetings, and creating regular spaces for these conversations to be picked up or for actions to be reviewed at a later date. Containing conversations in this way also communicates that race and racism are issues that are taken seriously by the organisation. By bringing them to a team meeting, there’s an understanding that there’s a collective or shared responsibility when it comes to thinking about and managing issues of race and racism in the workplace.

How can I support my colleagues from minority ethnicity groups?

The single most important thing to bear in mind when thinking about how to support your colleagues from minority ethnicity groups is not to assume anything about what they want or need with respect to support around race and racism. Everyone will have their own reaction and feelings towards discussions about race and racism. Further, even people who identify as belonging to the same ethnic group may have very different ideas about what support they want or need. Therefore, as part of the organisation’s diversity and inclusion policy, the support needs of staff from minority ethnicity groups can be identified (e.g. having conversations with staff who identify as belonging to a minority ethnicity group, or carrying out surveys across all staff), responded to appropriately (e.g. providing more training, organising reflective spaces, or refining complaints procedures), and reviewed at specified intervals to check that it’s effective and meaningful.

A final word

Conversations about race and racism are still important and necessary in (and outside of) the workplace. Although we may worry about getting things wrong, educating ourselves, using structure and seeking guidance from those who are affected or expertise from professionals, there’s so much opportunity for learning, growth and change to take place within all our organisations.

About the author 

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Dr Fabienne is a Chartered Clinical Psychologist. She provides training, consultation, and reflective practice sessions to individuals, groups, and organisations covering a range of topics including stress, anxiety, trauma, resilience, race and racism. She also offers bespoke packages for groups, services and teams who would like to improve or enhance their current diversity and inclusion practices and policies. You can learn more about Fabienne here.

Further reading recommended by Fabienne:

  1. Anti-Racism Resources, Survivors’ Network
  2. A Detailed List of Anti-Racism Resources, Medium
  3. Black Lives Matter: Anti-Racism Resources, Glamour
  4. New Anti-Racist Education Resources, The Educational Institute of Scotland